Eternal sunset of an awesome time

Osby Lake

At 56° latitude, Älmhult is by far the northernmost place I’ve lived, so this is my first time experiencing the endless days and bright nights of a northern summer. The solstice is still three weeks away, but already the sun is traveling in wide circles across the sky, only dipping below the horizon for a scant few hours at night. Even at one in the morning, a little light remains as twilight gives nightfall a miss and goes straight on into sunrise. I’ve written before about the strong ties between the darkness and Scandinavian culture, and the long days of summer are no less influential.

With so many hours of daylight, flowers shoot up from the ground like rockets, and Swedes who huddled around their hearths all winter take to the streets, parks and lakes at all hours of the day and night. Conversations take on a hint of manic joy, and you never feel like sleeping. Ever. The sunsets last absolutely forever, as the sun bobs orange for hours in its ice cream sky, sinking so slowly that it’s like being frozen in time. If you’re listening to music, this glorious scene turns every song into a moment of perfect, instant nostalgia. I’ve been listening to Nick Drake a lot the past few days, as his dreamy strumming and gentle voice feel tailor-made for the long twilight of the northern sky.


It’s no coincidence that there are a staggering number of public Swedish holidays this month. Almost every other weekend has an extra day or two tacked on, and carpe diem becomes something of an art form. Going by how jam-packed grocery and beer stores were this weekend, I’m guessing everyone in Älmhult was either hosting or attending a barbecue. Scott and I had the good fortune to be invited to two of these get-togethers, where we were once again enchanted by the warmth and openness of our new Swedish friends.

The atmosphere at these gatherings was an interesting mix of peaceful bliss and frenetic good cheer. Relaxing under the trees gave way to a silly game of badminton using a fishing net in lieu of a racket. Gazing out over Osby lake gave way to rounds of snaps and drinking songs, each merrier than the last. These songs, called snapsvisor, are a proud Swedish tradition and the hallmarks of a truly successful party. Needless to say, I was so wrapped up in researching this post that I failed to document the moment. Luckily, YouTube has plenty of footage of snapsvisor, and they go a little something like this:

In the endless sunset, we played and laughed long into the night, never noticing the lateness of the hour. Only at midnight did the sun retreat far enough to warrant lighting torches on the beach, turning each reveler into a silhouette against the sparkling lake. And even as we rode home, the night sky remained a rich blue, heralding the dawn that would send us to sleep by the light of a golden sunrise.

Sweden Lake Sunset

The Eurovision final was so much better than I could have imagined

Conchita Wurst

Saturday’s Eurovision final in Copenhagen was a delightful, thrilling, and ultimately moving experience for viewers across Europe and especially those of us lucky enough to be in the city. Scott and I were there with my parents, and while our luck wasn’t quite good enough to get us into the live show, the giddy, dizzy excitement of fans milling in the streets and gathered at free outdoor concerts made Eurovision one of the most exhilarating city-wide parties I’ve experienced in a long time.

Eurovision party people

The open-air warmup shows featured musical acts of all kinds, and as we walked through squares and across canals, the rambunctious buzz of swing music was overtaken by strains of K-Pop-inspired karaoke, which in turn faded as we waded into mellow waves of electric folk. This year’s Eurovision organizers paid homage to the illustrious history of the event, and walking from stage to stage, I heard more renditions of “Waterloo” in one afternoon than I had in all my years put together.

Stages everywhere2

The contest finals were held in a giant empty factory on an island that is now (and possibly forever) christened “Eurovision Island”. It was only open to ticket holders, but we got a pretty good look at it from a boat that took us out into the harbor. My photo of the venue is pretty blurry, because I didn’t bring my good camera with me out on the water. This decision proved both extremely foolish in light of all the canalside action I witnessed, and extremely wise in light of the sudden and total downpour that left everyone on the boat drenched and shivering.


Despite the cold, wet weather, it seemed like the whole city was out in the streets. Of course, the combination of large crowds and international media presence brought the dirtbags out of the woodwork as well. During afternoon coffee, we were startled by the sound of stomping boots as fifty-odd masked militants tore down Strøget dragging smoke canisters and shouting slogans. They were a right-wing fundamentalist group protesting religious diversity in Denmark, as we discovered later when we unwittingly walked into the vicinity their standoff against the police. At first, we weren’t sure what was happening as dozens of vans packed with officers in riot gear careened past us with sirens howling. A helicopter hovered right over our heads and every street was blockaded by officials who were not in the mood to talk about what was going on. It was unsettling, especially when we heard the crack of small arms fire a few blocks away.


It was a dramatic scene in which there were thankfully no casualties, and which was oddly given barely any mention in the news the next day. We eventually made it out of the chaos and were so relieved to be back in our warm, dry hotel that we settled into the bar to watch the show rather than venture back out. Little did we know that the collision of tolerance and bigotry that we’d witnessed that afternoon would prove to be a key theme in the narrative of the Eurovision finale itself.

The highlight of the evening was the sweeping victory of Austria’s Conchita Wurst for her performance of “Rise Like A Phoenix”. The story of how this champion rose to win it all is fascinating and moving: Conchita, affectionately nicknamed “Queen of Europe”, is the drag persona of Tom Neuwirth, a television personality and former boy band member. Her selection as Austria’s Eurovision delegate was contentious and triggered a deluge of condemnation from bigots near and far.


Both despite and in light of the controversy, support for Conchita grew as she moved through the semi-final rounds winning new fans at every turn. In the end, she earned high votes, not only from viewers, but also from juries in a majority of countries. As the results came in, her laughter and tears were lovely to behold, and her acceptance speech perfectly summed up the power and significance of the moment: “This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom.”

That future moves a little closer whenever a cultural majority speaks out in support of the freedom to be different and to be one’s self. That for me, much more than any specific reading of what Conchita represents, is what made this television moment so remarkable. “First they laughed,” said BBC presenter and Eurovision commentator Graham Norton with a catch in his voice, “and then she just broke people’s hearts.”

Despite its famously lavish and kitschy musical performances, sophisticated camp is surprisingly rare at Eurovision. After the initial surprise of seeing Conchita appear in her beard and glimmering gown, I was stunned by the drama and emotion of her sighing, soaring voice, her statuesque grace and her sparkling stage presence. Her victory encore was nothing short of magical, and I had shivers as I watched her eyes shine in the spotlight.

Queen Conchita’s performance and story left everything else looking just a little dim in comparison, but a handful of other European countries came through with the ridiculousness I’d so eagerly anticipated. Poland, for example, gave us this tremendously amusing number:

According to a group of Danish and Azerbaijani fans who joined us to watch the show, this song is satirical in nature with lyrics that lampshade the objectification of women. Unfortunately, any feminist nuances were lost in translation for anyone who didn’t speak Polish, so the performance may not have had its intended effect.

Several countries made valiant attempts to out-diva Queen Conchita, and while no one was able to touch her, Ukraine’s Maria Yaremchuk made a very fine showing:

The unrest in Maria’s home country added a palpable layer of subtext to the event, and each time a vote for Ukraine was announced, the cheering of the crowd escalated into a frenzy. On the other hand, Russia’s Eurovision delegates bore the brunt of their country’s military actions and LGBT rights abuses, and were loudly booed at every turn.

As an outsider, I was riveted and fascinated to witness the ways in which Eurovision holds a mirror to the complexities of European culture and politics. It’s a glittering and surreal microcosm where bombastic musical numbers and television artifice play out the drama of longstanding rivalries and the friction between old ways and new ideas. Deeper insight into the phenomenon hasn’t in any way dampened my fervent appreciation for its delicious cheesiness, either. Instead, it leaves me even more enamored with Europe and its ability to face adversity and rise (yes, like a phoenix), transformed by spectacle and united by music.

The glory that is Eurovision

Who's to blame?

This weekend, over half the population of Europe will tune in to witness the wonderful and bizarre spectacle of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest. I’ve been looking forward to this year’s musical extravaganza with more voyeuristic glee than ever, because the competition will take place right in my backyard.

I’ll be in Copenhagen when it all goes down Saturday, and though I won’t have the privilege of attending the show, I’m looking forward to the energy in the streets as tens of thousands of visitors from across Europe make their way to the arena for the final showdown.

If you’re not from around here, you may not be familiar with the glory that is Eurovision. What began in the 50’s as an initiative to foster goodwill among European countries has since become an annual pageant of lavish musical numbers that range from earnest, to cheesy, to absolutely bonkers.

Case in point is Romania’s 2013 entry, and my all-time Eurovision favorite, “It’s My Life” as performed by Cézar.

If this year gives us anything half so good, I will be delighted.

I’ll share highlights after the dust settles Sunday, but for now let’s take a look at the home team. Sweden’s 2014 entry is “Undo”, performed by Sanna Nielsen who is the favorite to take the whole competition this year. If she’s successful, it would mean Sweden’s fifth Eurovision win and their second in just three years.

When “Undo” narrowly took first place at Melodifestivalen, the national contest that determined Sweden’s Eurovision submission, there was some controversy around whether the lyrics should be modified before the song went to the big leagues. The crux of the debate was whether to change the poetic but ungrammatical “Undo my sad” to the alarmingly angsty “Undo myself“. Happily, the songwriters stayed the course, and their commitment to the song’s artistic vision might just be what puts Sweden over the top Saturday night.

I personally have nothing against Sanna, though I had dearly hoped rival number “Blame It On The Disco” would be selected to represent Sweden.

The dance moves. The costumes. The AMAZING KEY CHANGE. I was devastated when they came in third and were relegated to the dustbin of Eurovision history.

With 170,000,000 viewers last year, Eurovision’s popularity is undeniable, and yet it stirs strong and complicated feelings in the average Swede. Pretty much anyone you ask will tell you it is cheesy, silly and irrelevant, but almost everyone watches it. During Melodifestivalen’s regional and national elimination rounds, the water cooler at IKEA buzzed for weeks with commentary that was at once derisive and painstakingly detailed. Everyone agrees that the songs are horribly uncool, and yet I have witnessed Swedish girls flooding the dance floor upon hearing the first strains of Melodifestivalen runner-up Ace Wilder’s “Busy Doin’ Nothin'”

Wilder came in second by a mere three points, but despite the timeless universality of her song’s message, the dream of unearned personal wealth didn’t capture the European psyche as well as Sanna’s lovelorn anthem. I’ll admit, the songwriter and marketer in me is strangely fascinated by the Eurovision songs and what makes everyone love/hate them so much.

So like a good Swede, I’ll tune in Saturday before bed just to see what happens. Not that I care or anything; I’d just hate to miss out on the wave of secret, shameful pride that sweeps Sweden when Sanna wins it all.

Sweden’s haunting south coast

Scott and I recently got the chance to take a much-anticipated drive around the south of Sweden to explore its natural and archaeological wonders. As much as I love traveling on foot and by train most of the time, it was a welcome treat to rent a vehicle and see the more remote parts of Skåne County.

No amount of research or anticipation could have prepared me for the stark and eerie beauty of the countryside. The guidebooks and travel blogs accurately describe miles of sandy coastline and remarkable Bronze Age artifacts; what they fail to capture is Skåne’s bewitching and moving loneliness.

The most incredible sight was Ales Stenar, Sweden’s own mini-Stonehenge, which sits on a grassy plateau that plunges sharply into the sea. It’s the largest of the Baltic region’s 3,000 year old stone ships, and standing on the ancient ritual site is a beautiful and unsettling experience.

Ales Stenar


At 200 feet long, Ales Stenar is smaller by far than Britain’s far better-known megaliths, but it has other important differences that make it stand out. For one thing, it’s completely open: no ropes, no fences, and none of the usual signifiers of a much-visited tourist site. Another thing that amazed me was that Scott and I were the only people there for much of our visit. The only other witnesses to the majesty and mystery of the site were a few sheep who pretty much ignored us in favor of the far more interesting grass.

Ales Stenar


Almost as dramatic as the stone ship were the adjacent cliffs and their sheer drop into the sea below. If you look closely, you’ll see a little white house that gives a sense of how high these cliffs climb from the shore.

Ales Stenar


Ales Stenar was only the first of a seemingly endless stretch of wild and windy beaches that line the medieval town of Ystad. As we traveled west toward Falsterbo, cliffs and rocks gave way to grassy, sandy strands blanketed with ink-black seaweed.



Salt-worn beach huts, left empty for the winter, added to the strange solitude of the place.


Part of the reason I was left with such an impression of loneliness was that we saw far more birds than people on our travels in Skåne. Birds were everywhere. We saw swans, geese, eagles so enormous I mistook them for airplanes in flight, and endless flocks of crows.

As a Vancouverite, I know from crows. I’ve seen the skies of the East Van crowpath black with swarms of Hitchcockian proportions. What I’ve never seen is the nesting behavior I observed all along the south coast. Swedish crows choose a nesting tree in the birches and elms that line the farmers’ fields across the county. And when I say they choose a tree, I mean all the crows in the neighborhood pick one tree and fill it with nests, leaving the surrounding trees empty. The effect is striking and spooky.

Crows nest treeCrows nest tree

In fact, this little road trip left me convinced that Sweden is really a very spooky place once you look past its uncommonly warm and welcoming inhabitants. Besides the many creepy abandoned houses and factories, the countryside is full of weathered churches…


…windmills stripped of their sails…


…and castle yards that inspire shivers even on sunny days.



In other words, it’s terrific fun for those who appreciate a dash of gothic gloom to go with their travels. To these kindred spirits, I highly recommend Sweden as a place in which to journey into the dark fairy tales of imagination. Just keep a light on when you get back to your hotel room and lay down to sleep. You know, just in case you need to find your way in the middle of the night.

Glimmingehus stocks


Danishes and Elderberry at Andersen bakery, Copenhagen


Long before my first visit to Copenhagen, my mother traveled there to accompany my sister on an audition. Mom was delighted to report that the Øresund area had a thriving food culture and that the breakfast pastries in Denmark were some of the best she’d ever tasted. “They’re hard to describe,” she said. “There was fruit filling, and the pastry was light, but not overly crispy. It was almost like a… danish!” There was a pause, then everyone (including Mom) burst out laughing at the silliness of this minor eureka moment.

It makes perfect sense that the pastries in question would be called danishes. They are to Danes what croissants are to the French, and they can be found in every bakery and cold breakfast spread in Copenhagen. Oddly enough, despite their popularity, Denmark hesitates to claim these pastries as their own. The Danish call it wienerbrød, which translates as “bread of Vienna”, because locals credit Austria with the invention of this breakfast staple . Meanwhile, Austrians return the volley by referring to these pastries as Kopenhagener Plunder or Dänischer Plunder.

Figuring that a danish by any other name probably tastes just as sweet, Scott and I headed to Andersen Bakery to try them for ourselves. One of Copenhagen’s top bakeries, Andersen is named for the city’s native son, Hans Christian Andersen, and its history is almost a fairy tale in itself.

Once upon a time, a Japanese baker named Shunsuke Takaki visited Copenhagen and fell in love with the beautiful Danish pastries. He was so taken by their loveliness that when he returned to his home in the faraway land of Japan, he opened his own Danish bakery in Hiroshima. As the years passed he opened more Andersen Bakery locations, and soon the land was filled with the magical aroma of fresh bread. He ruled over these bakeries wisely, but his heart always yearned for the country where he was first inspired. Years later, Takaki’s son and daughter fulfilled their father’s dream and opened three Andersen bakeries in Copenhagen, followed by another in San Francisco.

The story ends, as every fairy tale should, with much rejoicing. Takaki’s dream is manifest in a gleaming bakery with long rows of golden and jewel-colored delights, and just one bite of Andersen’s fabled danish was enough to make me feel like I could live happily ever after. The wienerbrød’s base was an unusually tender puff pastry that had all the flaky, airy qualities you’d expect on top of an almost strudel-like chewiness. The icing was just the way I like it: not overly sweet, but perfectly set without a trace of hardness. Of the two danishes we ordered, the raspberry one was filled with an intensely flavorful seedless jam that was well balanced in sweetness and acidity. The vanilla cream version was equally impressive with generous flecks of raw vanilla bean sprinkled throughout its velvety custard filling.

Danish detail

Almost as enticing as its pastry selection was Andersen’s array of warm beverages. I ordered hyldeblomst saft, which the menu board helpfully translated as “elderflower water”. Unlike in Canada, where you only find elderberry in cocktails and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, this wild woodland blossom is a staple of the Scandinavian flavor profile. My drink was served warm with lemon, and while its flavor was certainly floral, it was more like chamomile flower than rose or jasmine. After the vivid and balanced flavors of the pastries, the elderflower water was shockingly sweet, which made me wonder why it was served with a spoon. It certainly didn’t need any added sugar, and the floral notes would not have stood up to milk. Nevertheless, the spoon was there, and having nowhere else to put it, I left it in the glass where it made breakfast interesting by poking me in the eye a few times.


If you’re in Copenhagen, I’d definitely recommend stopping in at Andersen Bakery for breakfast. The danishes are unquestionably delicious, and if you have a sweet tooth, give the hyldeblomst saft a chance. Despite its sweetness, it really is very good; so much so that next time someone tells me my father smells of elderberry, I will take it as a compliment.

Andersen Tivoli/Nimb
Bernstorffsgade 5, København
Tel: 033 75 07 35

Now go away, or I shall taunt you a second time.


The fog in Copenhagen

Chapel Fog

It’s a funny time of year when the weather can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s the end of winter or the beginning of spring. The first brave little flowers and buds appear only to bend their heads to rain, cold and wind. Fortunately, with these grey days comes one of my favorite things: fog.

Scott and I recently spent a few days in Copenhagen where the white, heavy mist made the city seem like a gorgeous, eerie dream. The weird effect that fog has on sound only reinforced this impression: close-by noises were dampened so that they seemed very far away, while distant sounds were strangely amplified. The tapping of my boot heels on cobblestones and the soft, solemn lapping of water on the ancient seawall were swallowed whole in the haze, while ships’ bells clanging and rigging clanking out in the harbor sounded close enough to touch. It was like walking in a Hans Christian Andersen version of Silent Hill. In other words: fantastic.

As much as I love a foggy day, and despite having a Vancouverite’s tolerance for gloom, I was apprehensive about the prospect of all-day darkness when we first arrived in Sweden. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that some of the loveliest Scandinavian customs are inspired by the sunless days I’d so dreaded. Candles burn day and night in restaurants and hotel lobbies. Lanterns flicker outside the doors of shops and houses, while windows twinkle with lights all through the evening. In Copenhagen in particular, there are lanterns and lamps almost everywhere you look.   


Other ways to rage against the dying of the light include painting buildings in cheerful egg tempera-like colors.


Or, if it’s the cold that bothers you most, you can drape yourself in fur from head to toe. Copenhagen is well known for its fur, and there are animal hide coats, hats, capes, and blankets absolutely everywhere. One morning, I saw Cruella DeVille brought to life in a full-length black-spotted white rabbit-fur coat, sporting a perfect platinum bob, red lipstick and deep frown lines.

Though fur really isn’t my thing, I can see how it would be a good defense against the insidious, wet cold of a coastal Danish winter. How else could you enjoy a Carlsberg on the patio in March?

Fur Chair Covers

Far lovelier to me than the ubiquitous pelts were the nautical and military influences that dominate Copenhagen’s art and architecture. The old city is heavily fortified with stone and earthworks, and even its churches have sailing ships and cannons carved in bas-relief into their walls. This makes sense when you consider that the city has spent nine hundred years alternately trading with and being attacked by its neighbors.


We stayed at the Admiral Hotel, a lovely old place that looked like a fort on the outside and a ship on the inside. There were nautical features everywhere in the building, and even the wall in our room had plaster marks where an oval-shaped hatch used to be. Coming into our room late in the evening and seeing this patch job, I thoughtlessly wondered aloud whether the building might be a converted ship. Definitely not my finest moment, though wine and jet lag share some of the blame for this spectacular foolishness. Scott looked at me incredulously before breaking out in a wide grin and saying in his best pirate voice, “Arrr, old bricky. Why’d she sink?”

Admiral Hotel

The hotel was, of course, not a converted ship. Rather, it started life in the 18th century as a warehouse on the harbor, which gave it a front row seat to a string of British attacks during the Napoleonic Wars. It’s amazing to me that despite centuries of friendly and unfriendly exchange with all of Northern Europe, Copenhagen’s culture remains so distinctly its own. For all its bitterly cold weather, the friendly people and places make it one of the warmest cities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.

I’m glad I got the opportunity to see Copenhagen beneath its beautiful wet blanket of fog. As we head into spring, I’ll no doubt be back to explore the vintage fairgrounds at Tivoli, or to partake in the local custom of finding a perfect seaside bench for brownbagging it on a warm night. Meanwhile, I’ll just have to make like those early flowers and turn up my collar to the wind, knowing that the sun will return soon. Copenhagen’s graffiti says it, and I believe it.

Dont Worry

SMAK Malmö Konsthall

SMAK salad bar

I am convinced that the people of Malmö are some of the friendliest in the world. I formed this hypothesis during a day trip to the city, where interactions with the locals were improbably pleasant, even for Sweden. The bright-eyed girl serving pastries at Ambrosia Cafe & Konditori chatted happily for ten minutes about life, marriage, and the unique challenges of working at a bakery in a tourist city. (One of these was having to switch between speaking Swedish, English and French, which she did with admirable ease.) When Scott and I went to get SIM cards, the smiling lady who sold them was so intent on providing the best phone plan that she sent us down the street to another store. There, we met yet another amiable woman who waxed lyrical about the joys of spring and recommended we visit a cemetery where we would find snowdrops and crocuses by the thousands.


With so much good will floating around, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the warm reception we got at SMAK, the excellent restaurant housed in Malmo Konsthall art museum. I’d sent an email late the night before, hoping to secure a last-minute reservation, but I hadn’t had a chance to check my inbox that morning for a reply. As soon as we walked into the busy space, the beaming (and possibly clairvoyant) greeter called out “Ah, Sarah!”, and ushered us to a table marked by a lovely hand-written card. After settling in for a moment to take in the shining surfaces and merry daytime candlelight, we stood to begin our meal.

Back in Canada, there aren’t many enjoyable dining experiences that involve carrying around one’s own tray. (Vancouver’s wonderful Art Gallery Cafe is a notable exception.) In Sweden, it’s pretty much the norm. Most lunch places offer a choice between three or four main courses with self-serve salad bar, bread station, coffee, and sometimes even cookies to end the meal. So after a quick trip to the counter to grab trays, pick up cutlery and order our mains, we moved on to what might just be the best salad spread I’ve ever tasted.  


The dishes were deceptively simple. A carrot salad flavored with ginger, orange, dijon might not seem like anything to write home about, but the precise balance of flavors was like nothing I’d tasted before. Another salad featured large, chewy durum wheat grains called Ebly (which were a joy to discover), and was likewise skillfully seasoned with paprika, garlic and coriander. Even the green salad, a fresh, peppery mix of arugula, thinly sliced radish and citrus vinaigrette, was exceptional. The bread station was piled high with rustic loaves that bore the scorch marks of an artisanal oven, and the thick crusts gave way to rich softness inside.

SMAK bread station

The relaxed, friendly service was perfectly on point, leaving just enough time to enjoy the salads at our leisure before the main courses arrived. Scott’s dish was a gorgeous beet terrine topped with walnuts, goat cheese, mizuna, pear and red onion. I wish I’d gotten a better picture of this plate, because it was as beautiful as it was delicious.

SMAK beet terrine

My main course was baked cod with carrots, pickled mustard seeds, beetroot sprouts and a creamy, mussel-infused sauce. While I could go on at length about the sweet, flaky fish or the luscious sauce, the real show-stoppers were the pickled mustard seeds. They brought all the richness of dijon without any of the sharpness, and combined it with an almost caviar-like texture.


The overall experience was so impressive. I suspect the chef moonlights as a classical composer, because the menu was put together with all the skill and artistry of a piano sonata. The distinct flavors of the ingredients came together in perfect harmony, and themes introduced early in the meal reappeared as variations later on. Despite the unique character of each dish, there was a discernible tone to the whole meal that spoke of restrained and rigorous attention to seasonal ingredients.

At the end of this outstanding meal, I was almost relieved to find that SMAK’s coffee station didn’t include any sweet treats. (Almost.) A hot drink was the perfect end to our lunch, and Scott liked the coffee so much he had two cups. The restaurant is situated directly beside the main exhibit space, so we were treated to an after-lunch stroll among a selection of featured paintings, photographs and sculptures from the City of Malmö’s art collection.

Malmö konsthall

There were a couple of great pieces on display, including Andres Serrano’s stunning Black Supper. I was also happy to see this jolly little guy:

Malmö konsthall bonhomme

And just when I thought the fun was over, right outside the front door of the museum was a playground with stylish steel monkey bars in a variety of artsy shapes, squiggles, and curlicues.


Monkey bars

I didn’t actually climb the monkey bars, though I was sorely tempted. Instead I made the grown-up choice and took Scott’s arm to walk back towards the rusty-red roofs of the old town.

If you are in Malmö, SMAK is an absolute must. I can’t think of a better way to spend a lunch hour.

SMAK Malmö Konsthall
S:t Johannesgatan 7, Malmö
Tel: 040-50 50 35

Sæglópur and the Øresund bridge

I took an early train to Copenhagen on the first leg of what felt like a very long journey to Las Vegas. It was strange walking down the dark, silent streets of our little town knowing that I’d be in the permaglare of the strip just 21 hours later.

As the train drifted south,  there was cloud cover over Skåne in the early morning light, and the matchstick forests and still lakes looked like a monochrome photo in the sunrise. I was enjoying a gorgeous soundtrack to the sleepy woodland scenery courtesy of Scott’s Bose noise-cancelling headphones, which he kindly loaned me for the trip. I put on some Fleet Foxes with the vague idea that songs about spring might somehow help bring it on in this part of the world.

Skane Winter by Mark Bowman

There is so much to love about travelling with headphones. Dampening the hissing and buzzing of trains and planes is just the beginning. Music adds dimension to what the eyes see, so that everything – landscapes, faces, birds flying – touches a deeper emotion. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, the randomness of song and scenery come together to amplify the meaning of both in a moment of perfect beauty.

I experienced just such a moment as the train reached the southernmost tip of Sweden and plunged into the subterranean darkness of Malmö station.

Andy Delcambre - flickr

As we sat in the tunnel, waiting for passengers to come and go, this came on my iPod:

Some god of electronics must have put Sæglópur on my playlist because for seven minutes, that music was the animating force of everything in my universe. The stark piano chords with their touch of delay echoed through the shadows of the tunnel. The sweet, lonely voice called from the darkness as the train began to pull away and emerged into the overcast morning, picking up speed toward the Øresund bridge.

And then something happened that made my heart detonate. At the precise instant that the song broke into its orchestral fullness (that’s at 1:54 for those of you playing along at home), the earth fell away and I was flying over the slate waters of the Baltic sea. In that same moment, the sun burst from behind the clouds scattering diamonds over every whitecap.

Øresund Bridge, image by Lars Ove Törnebohm

It was literally breathtaking, and I can only imagine what my fellow passengers made of the lady gasping and clutching her chest. In a sense, I really was experiencing a cardiac episode, and it was the best episode ever.

The Øresund bridge is a marvel of modern engineering, linking Sweden and Denmark over an 8 kilometer stretch of water that connects the Baltic and North seas. It’s one of the world’s most beautiful roads with its panorama of sea and sky, flanked by the distant gleam of cities on either side. Every time I cross it, I’m moved by the sight of its gray, melancholy waters and the lonely, capsized boat in the middleground.

Oresund ship by Kristoffer Stigson

I was especially affected that morning,with Sæglópur (Icelandic for “lost at sea”) winding down into its quiet, concluding chords as we touched the Danish shore. I felt like I’d been in my very own live version of Dark Side of the Rainbow, minus the munchkins. I arrived at Kastrup airport and headed for Vegas, knowing that none of Sin City’s glitz and glitter could ever touch the perfection of Sigur Rós and a break in the clouds over the Øresund strait.

A light in the window

Night Apartment

In a country where the sun sets before three o’clock on the shortest days of the year, it’s no surprise that lighting plays a crucial role in the home. Swedes take lighting seriously, and even our tiny town has three lamp stores lining the main square.

When we moved into our IKEA-issued, furnished apartment, we were puzzled to find several mismatched lamps scattered around the small studio: table lamps, desk lamps, and lamps stashed away in closets. Scott even found a chartreuse frosted glass lamp balanced on the front windowsill and promptly removed it.


When he came home from his first day on the job, he immediately rushed to the closet to recover the lamp and restore it to its former position. “It’s supposed to be there,” he said in the fretful tone that comes with being new to a country and mindful of cultural blunders. He’d learned at work that it’s traditional to keep a light in the front window on winter nights and to keep the blinds open until bedtime. From this I deduce that it’s probably not traditional to walk around in your pyjamas all evening, which is probably a good habit to cultivate anyway.

In Canada, traditions tend to be observed mostly by older folks who are joined by the younger crowd only on special occasions. Not so in Sweden, where they are very big on tradition. In the case of the window lamp, I was delighted to discover that the vast majority of windows in Älmhult, Stockholm and points between are lovingly illuminated every evening around four o’clock. The effect is magnificent and turns a trudge down a windy, wintery street into a holy processional home.

It’s not just an urban tradition, either. Even a farmhouse in a desolate field of snow will have pinpricks of light in its windows, casting a friendly yellow glow into the night.

House windows

While I’m sure some Swedes, especially those who don’t have the luxury of working from home, probably automate their lamps with timers, pressing the switch has become a cherished part of my day. To pause for a moment, mark the sun’s retreat and look forward to seeing Scott walk through the door always fills me with quiet joy.

Next week, my travels take me to a conference in Las Vegas, so I leave behind the grey skies of Småland for now. But even as I pack to go, I’m already dreaming of getting off the train at Älmhult station, turning the corner onto our street, and seeing the strange green halo that means Scott is waiting to welcome me back to the light and warmth of our home.



Dessert says a lot about a place and its people.

Hints about attitudes toward leisure, pleasure, and extravagance are revealed by the time, care and resources a country dedicates to what some people might call a non-essential food group. (Note: I am not one of those people.) A region’s finest fruits are proudly featured in tarts and pies, and the best of the season’s produce and cream are often the foundation of beloved holiday sweets.

It’s with good reason that the French speak of their madeleines; sweet things are the stuff of childhood, and memories of gatherings with loved ones take on an extra sparkle when seen through a veil of sugar. Behind every cherished cake recipe are the histories of countless grandmothers setting down stools to help little ones stir the batter. All this can be sensed when you first taste the specialty of the region you’re in.

So a good bakery is one of the first things I look for when I arrive in a new city. (Anything in the name of research.) When I walked into my first bakery in Sweden, my eye was immediately drawn to rows upon rows of enormous cream puffs. Seeing as this was a small town on a Tuesday, I was baffled by the sheer number and sorry for the poor soul who would be left with the ones at the back, no doubt many days later. Or so I thought.

It turns out that this baseball-sized confection, called a semla, is serious business in Sweden, and those I saw in the konditori that day likely sold out long before the doors shut for the evening. The average Swede eats five of these traditional Easter pastries every year, so I definitely have some catching up to do.

The size of the semla makes a little more sense once you get the chance to taste it. It’s not so much a cream puff as a cream bun. The bread is soft and light; a little like what you’d find in a homemade cinnamon roll or hot cross bun. The creamy filling is not the heavy, solid mass you get in a lot of similar-looking North American treats. Instead, it’s a delicate, only-just-sweet whipped cream flavored with cardamom to give it depth. Between the bread and the cream is a thin, subtle layer of marzipan that adds a little richness without overpowering the flavor.

Nothing I write could convey to you how delicious this is, and I can definitely see why they’re advertised on big signs outside every place that sells them. At our bakery in Älmhult, they even get their very own bags.


The plural form of semla is semlor, which sounds to me like the name of a villain in the Lord of the Rings. (Semlor. WE MEET AGAIN…Hardcore traditionalists are said to eat semlor by placing them in a bowl and pouring hot milk overtop. I’ve been assured this is delicious, but I can’t bring myself to do it. (Wouldn’t the milk melt away all the whipped cream?)

If you’re looking for something a little different to serve your sweetie pie this Valentine’s Day, I’ve included a recipe for semlor here. Who knows? It may even win you a princess.

Thanks to a cream bun...Thanks to a cream bun...

Semlor (recipe from Ewa at

Yield: 16-20 buns

Total Time: 2 hours

6 tbsp butter
1 cup milk
1 packet dry yeast or 50g of fresh yeast
1 pinch salt
3 tbsp sugar
3 cups flour
1 tsp cardamom
2 eggs, beaten (one for brushing)

10 oz. almond paste (recipe below)
1/2 cup milk (only if you are using store-bought almond paste)
1  1/2 cup whipping cream
confectioners (icing) sugar

Almond paste:
3/4 cups almonds or 3/4 cups almond meal (you can get this at Trader Joe’s or any organic food store)
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup sugar

Melt the butter in a saucepan, pour in the milk, and heat until lukewarm (99° F). Pour the yeast in a bowl (crumble the yeast if using fresh), and stir in a little of the warm butter-milk mixture until the yeast is completely dissolved. Add the rest of the butter/milk mixture, 1 egg, salt, sugar, cardamom and most of the flour (save some for kneading). Work the dough. It should loosen from the edges of the bowl.

Allow the dough to rise under a towel/cloth for 40 minutes. Sprinkle remaining flour on the counter, place the dough there and knead a few minutes, getting rid of any air pockets. Roll the dough into one big ball. Divide into 16-20 pieces. Make each piece into a round ball and place on a baking sheet with parchment paper. Allow buns to rise for  30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 440° F.

Brush the buns with the beaten egg and bake them for about 10 minutes in the middle of the oven or until golden brown. Let them cool on an oven rack under a towel/cloth.

Once cooled, cut off the very top of each bun. With your fingers, scoop out the insides and put them in a bowl.

If you don’t have store-bought almond paste, this is a good time to make it. Warm the milk and pour it, together with the almonds/almond meal, sugar, and the insides of the buns into a food processor to make a nice smooth paste. The warm milk will melt the sugar.

If you have store-bought almond paste, crumble it into a food processor, add the insides of the buns, and process with a little milk to make a smooth paste.

Put the almond filling into the buns. Whip the cream and put a large dollop in every bun. Put the tops back on and sift some confectioners’ sugar overtop.

Eat as is, or serve in a bowl with warm milk